The Korg 05R/W - Review and Retrospective

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 7 December 2015 |

Cunningly promoted in its 1993 release year as “The Korg Disguise Kit For Other Keyboards”, the 05R/W synthesizer module was unleashed unto a world in which MS-DOS was still Microsoft’s primary computer operating system, and most serious amateur musicians were still recording on tape. Computer-based audio multitrackers were making their way into circulation, but the ones that actually worked came at a serious cost, and the computer systems may (as was the case with the Atari Falcon) have needed professional upgrade work in order to properly run the prime software packages developed for them.

So for many amateur musicians, the cut and thrust of performance and recording was little different from the way it had been in the late 1980s. Music tech giants Korg had certainly been loathe to kiss goodbye to the 1980s AI synthesis engine which drove their legendary M1 workstation. Indeed, the updated AI2 system (or “AI Square”, as Korg printed it in their manuals) was spawning more keyboards and modules than the reviewers could squeeze into their offices – let alone actually find the time to review.

But in some ways, the very humble 05R/W was among the most important of the early 1990s offerings. Everything was stripped away, leaving a very small and unassuming half-rack-sized box, which contained the sound – just the sound – of AI2 synthesis. This, in conjunction with an attractive price, would give the micro-module super-wide appeal. If you liked the basic character of the Korg M1 or any of its offshoots, but you were already set up with alternative brands, all you needed was the 05R/W and a MIDI lead, and you could instantly tap into the then hugely popular sound of Korg AI2. Hence, “The Korg Disguise Kit For Other Keyboards”.

The 05R/W was originally priced at £599 in the UK, but it was available for £549 within weeks of release, and it didn’t take that long for the unit to plummet into territory which Korg probably found disappointing, but not really unexpected. Part of the problem with a retail price of £600 for the 05R/W was the cost of M1s on the secondhand market. You could get an M1 mint in the box for less than £700 by 1993. The M1 had a high quality keyboard, additional synthesis features, the workstation… and it was still the legend. The 05R/W was just a little box. That said, the 05R/W did have twice the polyphony of the M1, as well as twice the multitimbrality (32-note polyphonic, 16-part multitimbral).

The 05R/W was a Korg X5 without the keyboard, so I’d refer you to my Korg X5 review for some additional detail on the workings of the unit. But essentially, both items of gear could load any one of 340 onboard Multisound sample waveforms into each of two digital ‘oscillator’ slots within a Program patch. The two waveforms (chosen from a huge range of instruments or analogue component samples) could be mixed and combined, or alternatively a single waveform could operate alone. Then the composite sound was subjected to a digital representation of analogue filtering, envelope, LFO application, etc, before arriving at the end of the processing line – the onboard, digital, stereo multi-FX unit.

This was a much simpler system of sound creation than the one in early digital synths such as the Yamaha DX range. The Korg AI2 system was basically like analogue architecture, but with the scope to substitute accurate sample waveforms for the analogue's limited range of voltage controlled waves. But Korg AI2 did lack the more advanced filtering options of an analogue synth, and of course it would be ridiculous to pretend it had anything like the depth, character or sound quality of a Prophet 5.

As I think I mentioned in my X5 article, a particular weakness of this Korg synthesis system lay in the transition points of the multisampling. With the bare Multisounds, you could hear distinct and abrupt tonal anomalies as you played a chromatic scale. Combining the Multisounds helped reduce the glaring nature of those anomalies, and the onboard effects helped too. But the sonic components in these synths (and this applies right across the AI2 range, up to the most expensive options) could not withstand close scrutiny.

Where the 05R/W and its kin did score highly over trad analogue synths, was in their additional capacity to layer up to eight Program patches into Combination blocks. This had the potential for creating incredibly powerful stacks of pre-made patches, which the user could still process universally through the module’s multi-FX unit. By the time you’d built up these complex Combination patches, the sampling glitches in the individual Multisounds would probably be virtually undetectable.

For reference, the 05R/W facilitated 100 user-editable Program patches, 128 General MIDI Program patches (which could be edited and stored in the user bank, but not overwritten), and 100 fully editable Combination patches. There were also 8 onboard drum kits, some of which I found very usable. Again, though, this box just had the sounds – if you wanted the drums sequenced, you’d need to find a sequencer.

In terms of what the 05R/W is good for, it’s really whatever you make of it. If you can get hold of the Korg SE05 software editor, editing the sounds is very easy, and you can make anything from convincing house pianos, through cool organ simulations, to spectacular brass sounds. For the track I’ve streamed above (Fires of Hell), I used the Korg 05R/W’s trumpet and horn sounds, played monophonically, and heavily treble-boosted on the mixer. The lead organ sound used in the keyboard solos also comes from the 05R/W.

So all in all, a highly competent and useful module of its time, which is in no way redundant, even as we approach 2016. The majority of the factory presets are not really to my taste, but making new sounds is no great challenge, and I've never had a split second's technical trouble with my 05R/W, which is now well over two decades old.

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